Wrestling with Giants
I was a little apprehensive going into the Ico & Shadow of the Colossus HD Collection. My caution was born of past experiences with older, critically acclaimed titles that never quite lived up to my lofty expectations, played for the first time years after release (see Shenmue). I had played neither of Fumito Ueda’s games when they were contemporary, and recall being only vaguely aware of Ico, and then quickly forgetting all about it. Shadow of the Colossus completely passed me by in 2006, arriving around the same time as I moved to Japan, where I was PS2-less for the best part of a year.
It was EDGE magazine that came to the rescue in early 2009, with a list of the "100 best games to play today" which featured Ico and SoTC well inside the top 100. Reminded of Ico and introduced to SoTC, I dutifully went out and purchased Japanese copies of both games. I would manage around thirty minutes of each before I grew tired of the grainy visuals, as seen through my old composite cable, and could no longer resist the appeal of my PlayStation 3 in a year full of must-play titles.
I was best pleased when this year's HD collection presented a new opportunity to experience these classics, though I wondered how they would fair with my short attention span and preference for playing brand new games. Ico confirmed my fears as, despite being aesthetically pleasing, I found it to be a bit of a bore, with controls and camerawork that were a constant reminder that this was a ten year old game. There are so many odd choices in its design, most notably the inclusion of an entirely superfluous combat model that serves to constantly interrupt the carefully established atmosphere. For my full thoughts on the combat in Ico, see Spare the Stick, Spoil the Gamer.
Ico is of course not without its charms. I could appreciate its minimalist appeal and visuals, and the simplicity of boy meets girl is endearing as ever; it was a welcome breather in a year where I have played countless dialogue heavy and densely scripted games. There were a number of outstanding moments, but after a while I just wanted it to end so I could stroke my beard and consider its significance in the debate of video games as art and then move onto something else, preferably with more guns and neck snapping.
Shadow of the Colossus, on the other hand, exceeded my expectations. It built upon the qualities of Ico and improved on it in nearly every way, most notably in the gameplay department. The walking puzzles and climbing frames that are the massive colossi are among my most memorable and awe inspiring gaming moments of 2011. One or two of these creatures did fall a little short – the hit-and-miss path to colossus fifteen’s hidden weak spot and looping animations that doom you once caught under foot were extremely frustrating – but by land, water and air it is one of the most memorable collections of foes in any game, before or since.
From the Great Basilisk emerging from his watery slumber to the Trail Drifter gliding above the sands, each colossus brings something new and defining that makes your mammoth task so enjoyable. Despite their expressionless faces and beady eyes, I was impressed by how powerful and emotional the experience of felling each colossus could be. This was compounded by the fact that some of them do not act aggressively towards you until provoked and the realisation that these creatures are dying only to achieve your selfish goal. Pangs of guilt set in when you slaughter the more peaceful giants, as they crumple under their own weight, showered in black blood that gushes from a major artery. These feelings of regret soon disappear, however, when facing the more violent of the colossi, whose butchering I rather enjoyed.
The HD transfer is exceptional, and if you squint hard enough you could almost be playing a current generation title. The lonely, sparse world map manages to feel both desolate yet full of character – an achievement to rival the misty plains and valleys of Final Fantasy IX. The soundtrack works wonders, though the rousing battle theme does begin to grate after falling off the back of the same colossus for the tenth consecutive time. Despite being rather bare, the narrative is thoroughly engaging and even Assassin's Creed would be proud of the magnificently bizarre ending.
Shadow of the Colossus was well worth the wait. I had a sneaking suspicion that I would struggle to fully enjoy Ico, but I never lost hope that SoTC would blow me away, and that is exactly what it did. I just hope that Fumito Ueda's recent exit from Sony does not have a negative effect on his third, full effort - The Last Guardian - which, once it finally comes out , I won’t be waiting five years to play.